clergy abuse crisis

Young adults and the crisis: transparency and formation

"People mess up, but messing up has consequences."

This post was originally published at YArespond.

On August 28, more than 100 Catholic young adults gathered in the basement of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis to discuss the abuse crises in the Church. As we began our small group discussions, we asked each participant to keep in mind the diversity of the room. Some had very personal relationships to these crises. Some identified as liberal, others as conservative. We told everyone, “It’s very likely that people in here hold views that you find offensive, or that I do.” But we encouraged everyone to ask questions and to seek understanding, to resist the impulse to debate and correct others.

We often come back to the image of the need to “sit down in the living room together” and talk this out. Before we can respond, we need to know where everyone is at. These notes were taken during those conversations, and we are sharing them so that you can see the diversity, and also the unity, among the Twin Cities Catholic young adult community. The following is not meant to represent every Catholic young adult, but to provide you with some of the responses shared by those gathered.

The causes of clerical abuse

The most divisive issues among the young adult community concerned the causes of abuse. Many argued that abuse should be distinguished from homosexuality. One person felt “relieved” that the John Jay study found that neither the celibacy requirement nor any particular sexual orientation correlated to the abuse of minors. Others emphasized that abuse was more an issue of contact with minors and opportunities for abuse than orientation, and some expressed that they “strongly disagreed” that homosexual men should not serve in the Church. One person said:

“If a priest is carrying out his vow of celibacy, his sexual orientation has no impact on the way he conducts his business.”

Others disagreed. One person said, “Satan is trying to break up the Church from within from bringing in homosexual priests” and argued that priests with homosexual tendencies should not be admitted into seminaries. Another said that arguments concerning access and opportunity are simply “excuses” for the statistic that the majority of victims were male and that failing to diagnose homosexuality as central to these problems evidences a failure to accept Church teaching on sexuality. This individual argued that one of the key action items in responding to the abuse crisis is educating the laity on Church teaching and defending these teachings.

One individual expressed concerns about suggesting that loneliness leads to abuse by arguing that the laity can work to reduce loneliness as a risk factor for abuse by promoting the social and emotional welfare of priests. Others said that the isolation of clergy should be addressed. Considering the ways in which priests live and relate to others, one person said, “Be wary of isolated priests.” Some expressed hope in priests who are interested in and pursuing communal living.

In addressing the causes of abuse, many emphasized the need to focus on facts rather than opinions based on headlines. Many stated that multi-dimensional problems require multi-dimensional solutions. One person said,

“Scapegoating is not productive and only leaves people out of conversations.”

Seminary formation and the priesthood

Many shared concerns about seminary formation. One individual said:

“My faith is shaken on the effectiveness of discernment… How did so many bishops and Catholic leaders get it wrong with the reassignment of predator priests? And why didn’t the Holy Spirit intervene in the discernment process?”

Some stated that the laity are more involved in the vetting of seminary candidates than in the past and argued for increased involvement.

Some expressed that priests should be held to a higher standard. Another said: “We have put our priests on such high pedestals that they can’t be real with their struggles.” Many were struck by the statistic that 3.% of the abuser priests were responsible for 25% of the victims and asked about the consequences of abuse. One said:

“People mess up, but messing up has consequences.”

Another said that, while we can’t have clericalism, we do need to support our priests.

Some individuals shared their own experiences of seminary in the Archdiocese, saying that Paul Blaschko’s 2015 Commonweal article represented their experiences. They stated that, in seminary, sexuality was framed as a battle to be won, especially on the spiritual level. They said they were taught that sexual desires were attacks from the devil and demons, and that they were taught the names of these demons. One person said that these experiences contributed to his eventual discernment out of seminary.

Finally, one individual said concerning the discussion at her table:

“One of the final points we just started to discuss was that overwhelmingly we didn’t think this was a problem that was just going to clear up through time (this was one of the points of most intense agreement among the group). There are systematic and institutional problems that need to be fixed. Otherwise, the culture isn’t going to change, and it’s going to continue to foster the kinds of people and situations leading to abuse. But, as we discussed this, we bumped up against our lack of knowledge. We just don’t know what factors lead most directly to these situations, and how can we begin to fix systemic problems without understanding what they are? Clericalism? Some kind of relationship to homosexuality in the seminaries? We just didn’t know.”

You can read the previous post on the despair and hope of Catholic young adults here. Tomorrow’s post will address Catholic young adult perspectives on transparency and responding to abuse.

Learn more:

1 comment on “Young adults and the crisis: transparency and formation

  1. Mark Parry

    A letter to His Holiness from a British observer.

    Your Holiness,
    I am an Anglican priest and a also a member of an organisation which supports professionals wrongly accused of abuse [See:].

    False accusations are a reality, especially in the current climate of moral panic. A person may make false accusations for a number of reasons:-
    • Compensation/Greed. In the UK a person who wins compensation following an allegation of abuse can receive many thousands of pounds…much more in other countries.
    • Revenge for some perceived slight, argument or hurt…even against God!
    • Rejection. Some feel anger and hurt against the accused because they failed to return love (in the sexual or romantic sense)
    • Misunderstanding of some kind
    • Attention Seeking. In the sense that the accuser wants notoriety (e.g. in the media, family, the courts, &c.)
    • A Psychological Problem or is a Compulsive Liar
    • False Memory Syndrome
    Some of my colleagues have written a book on this subject, which safeguarding groups and others associated with this subject will find of interest:
    Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse
    Edited by Dr R Burnett
    (Oxford University Press, 2016)

    Contributors include leading lawyers, psychologists, criminologists and sociologists. Dr Burnett is a member of the Criminology Faculty at Oxford University.

    Of course, this is not to say that sexual abuse by clergy and church workers is not a reality too. It is as much the case in the Anglican communion as it is in the Catholic Church.

    I have considered this subject carefully, as I have many Catholic priest friends. Indeed my mother was a Maltese Catholic and I have worked in a Catholic school. It seems to me that you have a major problem among the clergy with loneliness and isolation.

    We have the idea of the priest being at the centre of life within his parish, but the reality is often quite different…and, at the end of every day, he closes his presbytery door and is alone. The need for love is as great for him as it is for anyone else…and in a world where less people respect or attend worship his isolation is all the greater.

    I have met clergy who have battled with this for years. They are often bitter, sometimes broken, depressed men; sometimes turning to alcohol…and yes, tempted by sex. I have known some who regularly visit prostitutes or who have live-in ‘house keepers’ who are in reality their lovers. Some reach out to a child for the love they desire or fall when in the presence of the vulnerable woman.

    The Catholic Church is perceived as being in league with the abuser and this is very damaging. May I, as an observer, humbly suggest the following –
    • the church release all pertinent records concerning abuse allegations in countries where there is a fair and just legal system and where the accused will be represented by competent legal counsel?
    • clergy accused of serious sexual misconduct be suspended until the police/courts have investigated allegations…..and that such clergy be pastorally supported during this process?
    • rules be relaxed regarding clergy celibacy?
    • The Catholic Church reconsiders the subject of the ordination of women to the priesthood? You might reflect on the valuable contribution made by women clergy within the Anglican Church.

    In my opinion, unless the Catholic Church acts on this as a matter of extreme urgency, it will not only be accused of not caring for children and the most vulnerable in society, but will face continued ridicule, huge litigation costs and could actually topple.

    Mark Parry


Leave a Reply (but please keep it respectful. See the comment policy on the "About" page)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: